Jan Gaye

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Marvin Gaye’s former wife reflects on his life and legacy.

The daughter of jazz great Slim Gaillard, Jan Gaye was the inspiration for Marvin Gaye's romantic classic, "Let's Get It On." She also sang background on some of his records, including being the only other singer on his #1 pop hit, "Got to Give It Up." She married the crooner in '77 and gave birth to two children. Although they subsequently divorced, Gaye stayed in contact with her ex until his death in '84.


Tavis: So, that said, as we continue our look at the life and legacy of the late, great Marvin Gaye, pleased to be joined by his former wife, Janis Gaye. Janis first met Marvin back in 1973 during a recording session here in L.A. for the classic album “Let’s Get It On.” Three years later, they were married. Janis Gaye, nice to have you on the program.
Janis Gaye: Thank you, Tavis.
Tavis: I’m glad to have you here. I know you don’t do this often, so I’m honored.
Gaye: No, I don’t, but I’m happy to be here.
Tavis: I’m honored to have you here.
Gaye: Thank you.
Tavis: I wish you were here under different circumstances, but I’m glad to have you here anyway.
Gaye: Thank you.
Tavis: Does it seem like 25 years to you?
Gaye: Sometimes. And then sometimes it seems like just yesterday.
Tavis: What makes it feel like yesterday and what makes it feel like 25 years?
Gaye: I don’t know – I guess it’s like certain memories that kind of come in and out. I’ll be reminded of something or I’ll look at my children. Sometimes I’ll look at my grandson. I may hear someone say something. But it’s hard to describe.
Tavis: You mention your children. You and Marvin had two kids together.
Gaye: Yes.
Tavis: Frankie and Nona.
Gaye: Yes.
Tavis: Your daughter Nona has sat in this chair before.
Gaye: Yes, she has.
Tavis: We know her as a fine actress.
Gaye: Yes, thank you.
Tavis: Before I talk about Marvin more specifically, your father – Marvin wasn’t the first famous guy you knew. Your father, which I was blown away when I did a little research, Slim Gaillard was your father?
Gaye: Yes, he was.
Tavis: Your father played with Count Basie, played with Billie Holliday, played with Dizzy.
Gaye: Yes, yes, yes.
Tavis: So your father, famous in his own right – a great jazz musician.
Gaye: He created something called “vout,” and that was his own language. And he was like the jokester – he kept everybody laughing. And he was on the road with Dizzy for years, and I remember sitting underneath a piano – I think I was maybe three or four years old – and that’s, like, one of my earliest memories, was sitting underneath the piano while somebody, I don’t remember who, quite, but somebody was playing the piano.
Tavis: I’m going to jump forward before I jump backward – I’ll jump forward and then come back, and I’m doing it only because of the reference now to your having music in your bones. Tell me the story about your begging Marvin to sing background on one of his records that we all know well.
And I crack up – I know two or three people, and you know the story; obviously, you were there. I know three or four people whose names, whose voices you hear on Marvin’s records because they would just stop by the studio while he was recording.
Somehow, everybody from Don Cornelius to (laughs) Mel Farr out of Detroit. I know so many Negroes who just (laughter) – whose names and voices appear on the record because they just hung out with Marvin.
Gaye: Negroes and not. (Laughter) Jane Fonda.
Tavis: Jane Fonda.
Gaye: She dropped by. There were – people just liked to be around him when he was in that really jovial mood, and he fed off the energy. And when you hear “Got To Give it Up” and you hear “Hey, Don, hey, Don,” when you hear Marvin yelling that, that’s actually Don just kind of walking through.
Tavis: Don Cornelius, “Soul Train.”
Gaye: And there he was. Marvin waved, I waved –
Tavis: And it stayed on the record.
Gaye: Marvin just said, “We’re keeping it.”
Tavis: And you’re singing background – you thought I forgot; I ain’t forgot about that.
Gaye: Okay, no, no, no.
Tavis: All right. (Laughs)
Gaye: Took me a couple of days, a lot of conversation. Lots of hugs and kisses, and “Wow, that sounds great.” (Laughter) “Well, is there any way, any possible way that I could just sing just a little something?” (Laughter) “No, no, you need to stay home and take care of the kids.” I said, “The kids are upstairs, they’re fine. Can’t I just do something, please?” “Okay, I’ll give you something.”
So he gave me my little line, and I sang it over and over and over again. I thought it sounded horrible, and when I listen to it today I still think it sounds horrible, but (laughter) my grandson loves it. “That’s my grammy singing.” And that was my one shot at being on wax. (Laughter) And had to call it a day after that.
Tavis: How did you meet Marvin?
Gaye: My mother was friends with Ed Townsend, who co-produced “Let’s Get It On,” and co-wrote. And Ed was my mom’s ex-boyfriend, and he was working with Marvin at the time. And they were working at MoWest in West Hollywood, and he called my mom and he said, “You’ll never guess who I’m working with.” And she said, “Who?”
And he said, “I’m working with Marvin Gaye.” And she said, “Oh, get out of here.” She said, “Well, how’s it going?” “Well, you should come down and hear.” And before that, because Ed was like this larger than life guy too, in his own way, and he said, because he was a little bit of a show-off too, “I’m just going to bring Marvin to Jan’s birthday party,” because this was right before I turned 17.
And my birthday party came and went with no Marvin, so the way of making up was to take me to the studio, introduce me to Marvin. I walked into MoWest, Marvin was actually in the booth, singing behind the mic. And I sat down on the leather couch right in front of him, facing him, and my mom was sitting next to me.
And I could kind of feel this thing between my mother and I, like, “Mom, get your eyes off of him – I’m checking for him, okay?” (Laughter) “I may be 17, but I’m checking for him.”
Tavis: This is like an episode of “Dynasty” or something.
Gaye: And I think he might be checking for me – it’s possible. And then in the back of my mind I’m thinking, oh, there’s no way. But turns out he was checking for me.
Tavis: And years later, you end up married with two babies.
Gaye: Yes.
Tavis: What connected you to him? Beyond the sex appeal, beyond the voice, beyond the talent, I know there’s got to be something deeper to be in love with somebody and make babies with them.
Gaye: I think it was his youthfulness – the fact that even though he was older than I was I think in my mind I was older and in his mind he was younger, and we met somewhere in the middle.
And the other thing was his incredible sense of humor. When we weren’t fighting or making babies or whatever we were doing, we were laughing. And he just had this really corny, dry sense of humor that I loved, and just from you and I sitting here talking you’re not going to get it from me now but I do have a sense of humor, buried very deep down at this moment.
Tavis: Ba-dum-bump. (Laughter)
Gaye: But we connected with humor. And the other connection was religion. I was brought up Catholic, he was brought up Pentecostal.
Tavis: He comes out of the church, yeah.
Gaye: Right. And we used to debate about that.
Tavis: Let me offer this as the exit question, the same question I asked of our earlier guests tonight. Again, a bit indelicate, if I can – where were you – everybody remembers; I certainly remember where I was when I heard the news that Marvin had been shot and killed. What do you recall about where you were when you heard this, and finally, what do you think Marvin’s legacy is?
Gaye: Well, I was staying with my mother because Marvin and I were broken up at the time, and it was April Fool’s Day. And the night before April Fool’s Day, when I used drugs, we were sitting up – there were a whole group of us. And for some reason, Marvin was the topic. We talked about Marvin for hours and hours and hours.
Finally went to sleep, and April Fool’s, like I don’t know, maybe 11:00 I got up, finally started to come out of my stupor, and a little around 1:00 I got a call from my sister-in-law. And she said, “I don’t know if this is a joke or not. Don’t take this the wrong way, but I heard that Marvin has been killed.” And I said, “That’s so not funny, Mary. That’s – please, that’s not funny.”
And she said, “I’m not joking.” And my next thought, my thought process was, this is Marvin doing this. This is him playing a joke on the world. And the next call that I made was to the police department. They put me on hold for god knows how long – seemed like an eternity.
And the detective came back and asked me three or four times who I was. I said, “I’m the mother of his children.” And he said, “Well, I have unfortunate news – he is expired,” was the word he used. And I’ll never forget him using that particular word.
It was nothing that I would have ever expected to hear, and I just remember letting out this wail that my mother came running. And she’s like, “What’s wrong, what happened?” Nona was in the house; she started crying. She didn’t know what was wrong. My son was outside on his bike. And I told Nona, I said, “Go get your brother,” because I wanted to tell them together.
And I’m, like, all over the place. And I sat the kids down together and held their hands, and I said, “I have to tell you the worst thing I’ll ever have to tell you in your lives, ever.” And before I could even say it, Nona said, “Daddy’s dead.” And we all started crying. My mother collapsed in a heap and I called my dad, and we all tried to pull together. But it was like being hit by a train.
Tavis: Thank you for indulging me on that, I appreciate you sharing that.
Gaye: Oh, that’s not a problem.
Tavis: Final question, then – 25 years after his passing, everybody has their own view on this. What do you think his musical legacy is? His legacy, period.
Gaye: Well, I think he has two legacies. I think the primary one would be obviously the music. That goes from generation to generation to generation and will continue long after you and I are gone. And the other legacy would be the children and the grandchildren.
He’s got three children who grew up without a father, who have struggled and survived, and he’s got three beautiful grandsons that’ll never meet their grandfather, unfortunately. That’s the really sad part. But they are the other part of that legacy.
My grandson knows now, Marvin Gaye was my grandfather. He knows the words to songs, he gets up and tries to dance, even though I remind him that Grandpa was not a very good dancer, you so you don’t have to try too hard. (Laughter) Just tap your toe a little bit, do a little hitchhike, and you’ll be okay. (Laughter) But that’s the legacy – the music and the children.
And it was no mistake when he wrote “Save the Children.” That was not a mistake. That was a – I don’t know, him looking into the future.
Tavis: I know that this day is tough every year for those who loved Marvin. I know it’s got to be tough on the 25th anniversary when everybody’s talking about it and the story is everywhere. And when I say I appreciate you giving us the exclusive opportunity to talk to you, I mean that. So thank you for sharing with us tonight.
Gaye: Well, I want to thank you for asking me here, because I was surprised that there was not more done to show appreciation and acknowledge the fact that this is the 25th anniversary. But the flip side to that is tomorrow’s his birthday, so he gets a cake.
I’m not going to bring out 70 candles. (Laughter) I’ll put one big seven in the middle, but I want to thank you too. I really appreciate it.
Tavis: I appreciate that – I accept that. The greatest tribute to him is, though, that any day, any hour of the day, all over the world, his music is played over and over and over again. So your point earlier – that’s the tribute, and I’m glad to have you on.
Gaye: Absolutely.
Tavis: Thanks, Janis.
Gaye: Thank you.
Tavis: And tell Nona we said hello.
Gaye: I will
Tavis: And she owes us a visit.
Gaye: I will tell her.
Tavis: Okay, all right.
Gaye: All right. Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: My pleasure.

Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm